[Viewpoint] Rx for a healthy democracy: vote

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[Viewpoint] Rx for a healthy democracy: vote

On June 2, voters will find a hefty new responsibility facing them in the polling stations: electing candidates for eight public posts.

Their first ballot will include the names of city and provincial education superintendents, members of the education board, municipal and provincial councilors, and county and district councilors.

The second ballot will list the names of governors and mayors, county and district heads, municipal and provincial assembly members for proportional representation, and county and district councilors for proportional representation.

Voters are selecting leaders to head local governments, assemblies and education authorities at the same time.

But just because they are bundled up in one voting day, it doesn’t mean the posts carry less weight than the office of legislative assembly members on the national level.

Local government heads each represent autonomous municipalities and provinces, overseeing all regional affairs. Mayors and governors allocate and execute the budget for each government and have the authority to approve or award business projects as well as appoint public offices.

As a matter of fact, they wield powerful authority over their cities or provinces - tantamount to the president’s over the central government - because their names can carry nationwide weight.

That authority and fame are what draw incumbent and former legislators to run for the gubernatorial elections.

The local assemblies create and revise local regulations, examine and approve local government budgets, and decide on major local policies and projects.

They keep the power of mayors and governors in check, and their actions and decisions have more direct impact on everyday public lives than the central government.

Likewise, the education superintendents and councilors, respectively, assume the role of mayors or governors and local assemblymen in the field of education.

Despite the significance of the election and its repercussions, the National Election Commission fears the turnout rate for the upcoming election will hover below 50 percent, and it’s beating its brain to encourage voting.

The local elections have seen voter turnout decrease since gubernatorial elections were first introduced in 1995.

In fact, voters have conspicuously shunned election days in recent years. The 2007 presidential election recorded the lowest-ever turnout rate, 60.3 percent, and 2008 general elections also showed a record low, 46 percent.

Local elections tend to be less popular than presidential and National Assembly races. In view of these statistics and the trend of decreasing turnout, the turnout in the June elections may reach only around 40 percent.

If both the voters who choose to take part in the elections and those who give up that right had few differences in ideology and political preference, low turnout would not pose a big problem. That’s because in a society with a high rate of congruity and uniformity, low turnout does not distort the representation and reflection of voters’ will.

But we no longer live in a simple agrarian society or a developing one motivated by the common goal of turning rags to riches through exports and industrialization. And we’re no longer in a transitional phase, morphing into a democracy from a military dictatorship.

We have arrived as a multifaceted democratic society with diverse generations, classes and regions producing a wide array of policy ideas and preferences.

In our country, low turnout in local elections has produced various forms of fallout. The ruling Grand National Party has dominated all levels of government, not only the National Assembly but smaller, local bodies, and that’s led to profligacy and arbitrariness of the governor or mayor and ever-lenient councilors.

Low turnouts suggest a lack of public interest and surveillance, giving the governors a license to waltz into corruption.

Lack of voter participation is generally spurred by political indifference and disenchantment. Municipal and provincial heads and assemblymen are as culpable as politicians in the capital for engendering political disinterest and distrust.

The reality presents a serious gap with the original goal of the autonomous government system: to help democracy take root and grow on regional grounds.

Bypassing the right to elect people to regional public offices does little to develop independent grassroots democracies. But every election offers a valuable opportunity to fix what’s gone wrong.

Boycotting the election may be a private gesture to express disgust in politics, but it is also a serious crime of evading reality and allowing a poor political legacy to continue.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of international studies at Kyung Hee University.

By Chung Ha-yong
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